A Season of Fire

I woke to the scent of wildfire. The curtains stirred faintly while I rose from the bed, but by the time I reached the window the night breeze had taken back its hint of smoke. The dim outlines of the moonlit mountains were smudged against the sky and the village lights lay scattered across the dark. There were no flames as far as I could see, and no other smoke drifting with the wind. But there were wildfires out there somewhere.

It’s fire season in the Balkans. The hillsides are as dry as dust, withered pale and hazy by heat. The forest trees are turning early; not ripening into their fulsome autumn glow but becoming brown and brittle. In an effort to conserve moisture the trees are stopping the flow of water to their leaves, needless accessories in an age of austerity. The last half of summer has felt like one long desert day, a cloudless and desiccating drought. It hasn’t rained for weeks, since the 26th of July to be precise, and the strain is becoming evident. There are arguments over water; the river is a stagnant groove; sleepless nights are followed by fractious days. The delicate purple spears of autumn squill are rising a month early and dying back within days. There is tension tied up with the lassitude.

After more than a month of  temperatures wavering between 30 and 36°C the land is raring and ready to go: tinder, kindling and seasoned wood all wrapped up in one and waiting for the spark to fall. It might be lightning or a thrown cigarette, a bored and cynical arsonist, the sun finding the right angle on a shard of glass. But fall the spark does; there were at least seven fires in Prespa over the last week alone.

One began while we were bird monitoring on the plateau, but because of the undulating hills and hidden valleys it was impossible to tell exactly where the smoke was coming from. The only thing we were sure of was its proximity to the only road out. In the handful of minutes between deciding to abandon the shift and packing up the telescopes and gear, the smoke had shifted from a thin white stream to a foul brown funnel mushrooming above the hills. We met shepherds hurriedly rounding up cattle, aware of how quickly a grass fire can spread. The fire was about a kilometre away when we finally reached the road after having rounded the pass. Dark smoke roiled like breakers on a beach, led on by the orange crests of flame. Police were stationed on the road and we soon passed fire trucks as we left the plateau. We drove for home with an uneasy feeling of what we’d return to in a few days.

In the end the fire never reached our survey area, but swept swiftly over a large area of similar stony grassland close to the Albanian border. The summer hills were branded with a large black welt and I tried imagining what it might mean in terms of habitat and ecosystem. Like most things in nature fire is a complex phenomenon. It can both destroy and restore. Some forests are fire adapted, especially pine, so that their seeds are dependent upon flames in order to germinate. They lay dormant, waiting for fire, or as Colin Tudge says in The Secret Life of Trees, until they are certain of growing in the “nutrient-rich ash provided by their immediate predecessors.” And for certain ecosystems – such as the native prairies of North America (or what’s left of them) – fire is an integral part of their evolutionary development, fueling the rich renewal of sweet, wild grasses that supported buffalo in such vast numbers. The roots of native prairie grasses run deep, protecting them from the fire which clears old growth and allows new shoots to emerge.

A few years ago a fire raced over the August hills where I often walked. I was swimming in the lake when it began and I remember my odd and contradictory instincts while watching it. Along with an abject sense of loss I experienced an inescapable fascination, absorbed with the immense energy on display. And so I decided to follow up the fire. For a year I returned each month to the same hills to observe and record the transformations bestowed upon them by the blaze. I walked the curious border that outlasts the flames, the meandering line that divides the charred world from the spared; I came home covered in ash from the outings.

Along the way I found dozens of tortoises burnt inside their shells and wildflowers flourishing from the ashes in unexpected profusion. I watched grasses return with spring vigour and resinous junipers skeletal beyond repair. Ants marked out myriad trails in the black aftermath; jays buried future saplings in the burnt earth in the shape of acorns, while old oaks keeled over from the strain. I found a fox skull at the foot of a tree and migrating birds skimming the air for insects. The whole hillside habitat was undergoing an extraordinary moment of change, and both of my earlier feelings were born out by the process: the loss and fascination of it all.

Fire is a natural component of our planet. Fewer and fewer fires are naturally started, however, and the delicate balance established over time between adaptation and flames becomes more precarious. Even well adapted ecosystems can’t weather a succession of storms, and global warming will result in greater periods of drought spread over a larger proportion of the planet, making catastrophic blazes increasingly common. Wildfires are an opportunity to rethink what we’re doing.

I woke to the stirring of the curtains again last night. The hot wind carried smoke on its back. I dreamt of fields ablaze, wisps of burnt grass and reeds and trees floating down in my restless sleep. But come morning the sky was clear.

Stepping out into another parched and blazing day, though, I’m aware of the endless possibility of fires igniting. Through the haze that already graces the early hour I sense the immense energy stored up and summoned by the sun. Everything feels on edge, and the air is taut. I’m waiting for the spark to fall.

124 thoughts on “A Season of Fire

  1. An area of heathland where I played as a boy, would catch fire in summer and I would wander through the twisted charcoal skeletons of incinerated gorse bushes fascinated by the charred remains left in the wake of the flames. Golf balls without their shiny white, pitted carapaces and the remains of small birds like miniature roast chickens were fairly common. The smell of scorched earth and carbonised resinous wood seemed an exciting and intimate aroma, which I can recall as I sit and write now. New growth would come and the brittle gorse skeletons would crumble away.

    Another fine and evocative piece, Julian – and some great pictures. I apologise in advance for the following edict from pedants’ corner: ‘fulsome’ refers to what is disgusting or offensive, especially in the context of excessive or insincere praise.

    Much love, Tweet

    1. Many thanks, Pete! Both for your kind words on the post and your correct pick-up on a misused word. Unintended praise has taken on an entirely new meaning, and no wonder prison blues are folsom, or thereabouts. But more importantly, thanks for the great story of childhood fires and your wandering fascination as you found whatever it had left behind. Curiosity brings us closer…and that intimacy is always a good thing.

      Much love,
      Julian

      1. Something didn’t seem quite right about the definition of ‘fulsome’ and I received an email that encouraged me to look into it a little more. Although you’re completely right regarding its meaning, the word is also still used according to its original meaning, which is rich, varied or adundant. The lovely thing about language, like the landscape, is that it’s always on the move. Trying to keep up with it is another matter!

        1. Hey Julian, yes I think that’s still the way most people intend the usage of fulsome. Glad to hear it still has some currency – is that a North American definition these days perhaps?

          Congrats on all the traffic!

          Much love, Tweet x

  2. I really enjoyed your incredible post. We live in the foothills of a mountain range and are keenly aware of the fire risk – luckily we have a daily aeriel check. We haven’t had any substantial rain since early May and with temperatures between 35 and 45 degrees, the little plane is kept busy! Last year we had a brush fire on a nearby slope caused by lightning. Early the following morning I walked the dogs and it was still burning and the village at the foot of the hill had been evacuated. Helicoopters flew in over the site with huge buckets suspended below, scooped up water from the river, and flew back up to the fire. The vegetation on these slopes is mainly pine, with cocoa, oak and masses of rosemary. Now 1 year on the regeneration has been amazing. Luckily there were no reports of animal losses: the wild boar and goats have gone to other pastures. Whilst the activity of dousing the fire was interesting to watch, you could feel the tension of the inhabitants. Where will lightning strike next?

    1. Moranna, thanks very much for both your much appreciated comments and your story. And a good question: where will the lightning strike next? Good to hear there’s regeneration as I imagine rosemary thickets would burn pretty hot and possibly damage the roots of other vegetation. Where abouts are you, if you don’t mind me asking? You must be in a real risk area to have daily fire checks. Fire control isn’t such a big priority in the mountains of northern Greece as the islands and the south of the country are generally more susceptible, but these days wildfires can occur nearly anywhere, as Russia is a good example of this summer. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.

  3. I’m so happy I stumbled upon this web site! You have a way with words! The story is told in a way only those with gifts for telling stories can. I could almost smell burning grass as I read the wonderfully pieced together words! The pictures are just as good! You have a wonderful eye! Even a mundane thing becomes a work of art and each picture is as eloquent as the words on this story. Marvelous, marvelous read!

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

    1. Rex, can’t tell you how honoured I am to read your kind words. Many, many thanks. I’m pleased that the story reached you in such a way. And I deeply appreciate you taking the time to read so closely. Thanks again and best wishes, Julian.

    1. Thanks very much…stumbling on the plastic bottle was one of those double-take moments! Unfortunately for the tortoises I discovered many in a variety of states and places. Even a year after the fire I was finding ones that I hadn’t seen before tucked up in odd little nooks. But there were living ones as well….thanks for reading. Best wishes, Julian

  4. This is beautiful in so many ways. It reminds me of a time when I was young when my family was evacuated from our home (in the Black Hills) because of a wildfire. It was out of control and it was coming near us.

    I remember the sky burning orange behind the house on the night we left as we packed the back of our truck. I was so scared that I would leave my favorite teddy bear behind and that he would be burned up. I carried him with me everywhere.

    In the end the fire didn’t get anywhere near our home. But the entire time we were staying in town hiding from the fire I was afraid that our house would be gone when we got back to it.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

    1. Thank you, Crystal. Both for your kind words and for sharing your story. Other than racing away from the hillfire I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience having to evacuate from a threatening fire. I can only imagine the fear it induces. Whether a fire reaches you or not, the sheer proximity of one is enough for worry. Glad to hear your story turned out well in the end! Thanks for taking the time to read…
      Best wishes,
      Julian

    1. Thanks very much, Jess. Glad that you liked both the words and the images. After all these fires I still find myself looking at them with conflicting perspectives! Perhaps that’s the nature of fire….thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read.
      Cheers,
      Julian

  5. Love the gorgeous pictures. Fire is so beautiful, yet so deadly… Keep up the good work and stay safe! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thanks very much; I’m pleased you like the image. I found myself getting closer and closer to the burnt wood as the months wore on, and found a great deal of beauty there. Thanks for stopping by…

  6. Such dramatic photos!! I went on my summer holidays to Eastern Finland and the smoke from the Russian wildfires was so thick at times…I feel sorry for everyone affected in those areas!!

    1. Thank you very much! I’ve been reading about the awful fires in Russia this summer, further proof that wildfires are no longer confined to southern regions. Can only imagine the devastation it caused. Thanks for taking the time to read.
      Take care,
      Julian

    1. Many thanks for linking the post. I’ve just had a quick look at your blog and will certainly look in again as soon as I have a chance. Glad the story struck a chord with you…and thanks for reading.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  7. Hi Julian, congratulations on being freshly pressed :)

    So many leaves have dried before their time here too. While your landscape is being ravaged by fire, ours is being tormented by winds brought on by a tropical storm. The elements will never cease to amaze us.

    It must have been sad to find all those tortoise shells. I can just imagine how they must have tried to move as quickly as possible out of harm’s way. Good to be a hare when danger strikes in the forest.

    1. Hi Amy-Lynn; good to hear from you! And many thanks for the congratulations. I’ve been reading about the storm approaching the Maritimes. Hope it’s not too bad in the end. My parents live in Ontario and have been telling me about torrential rains this summer. Much the reverse of over here. However I can report that we woke to glorious rain this morning. A sound and scent much missed!

      It was sad finding the tortoise shells, dozens of them scattered about the hills, but one day I lifted one to discover that wasps had built a wonderful papery nest inside. A perfect enclosure! I might post some photos one of these days…

      Thanks for sharing your comments…catch up soon.

      Cheers,
      Julian

    1. Along with logging and clear-cutting for agriculture, fire is certainly a problem for rain forests. Though paradoxically they shouldn’t occur there, the terrain being wet enough to absorb fire. But that’s changing, both in terms of general warming and drought conditions in otherwise damp areas, and the altered make-up of the understorey. Fire is becoming more common in many places, and as you rightly point out, the rain forests are no longer exempt. Many thanks for taking the time to read.
      Cheers,
      Julian

  8. Hey Hoff,

    I’m afraid Notes From Near and Far has attracted the attention of Google Ads and you’re now carrying an ad for fire extinguishers!

    I asked wordpress to stop it when I started getting ads and although they argued that it pays the bills (entirely valid) they did cease from thereon.

    Tweet x

    1. If I’d written about floods, I wonder if they would have tried selling patio heaters to the readers. Wonders never cease…

      Perhaps more importantly, I’d love to know where I’m supposed to aim a fire extinguisher when confronted with a forest fire.
      Cheers my friend,
      Julian

  9. “I woke to the scent of wildfire. The curtains stirred faintly while I rose from the bed, but by the time I reached the window the night breeze had taken back its hint of smoke. The dim outlines of the moonlit mountains were smudged against the sky and the village lights lay scattered across the dark. There were no flames as far as I could see, and no other smoke drifting with the wind. But there were wildfires out there somewhere.”

    Brilliant intro, usually I skim through the F.P. posts dreadfully, but your intro caught my eye and obliged me to read the even-interesting post! Where I live, the temperature barely goes below 28 in the summers, raining just a month throughout the year. I live in a metropolis though, and I might start imagining the concrete ‘trees’ getting a wildfire now! :D

    1. Sulfonix – thanks for taking the time to read the entire post! There’s a lot to read out in the world , as I’m well aware, so I’m honoured that the intro sparked your interest enough to see it through! Much appreciated…

      I woke to glorious rain this morning which finally broke the heatwave, but reading your comments got me thinking about living in a place that only regularly sees rain in a single month. We’re so used to our own places that imagining others is a useful, and sometimes surreal, experience! I’ll go to bed tonight with images of flaming, concrete trees floating in my dreams I think!!

      Cheers,
      Julian

    1. Thanks very much, 88nation. I owe a degree of gratitude to Freshly Pressed for help with the audience figures! Thanks for taking the time to read, and glad you enjoyed it so much.
      Cheers,
      Julian

  10. Supported by your excellent and perfectly illustrative photos, your writing is profound without self-righteousness and highly compelling. I feel a synergy with your observations and am thrilled to have stumbled across this post today. Thank you.

    1. Cindy, can’t tell you how delighted I am to read your comments. Not only am I pleased that the writing and images struck a chord with you, but that a connection was made. It makes the work worthwhile. Many, many thanks…and the thrill is mine.
      Best wishes,
      Julian

  11. Julian, I just stumbled upon your blog because it was featured on the WordPress homepage. `Beautiful words and photographs. I then saw that you will have a piece in Wild Apples which is coincidentally the publication that my mother Linda Hoffman started with some friends. It is beautiful little journal. Hope this finds you well,

    Alex

    1. Alex, I thought I recognised your name as soon as I saw the comment. I must have heard of your pottery work through Wild Apples somehow…but it’s great to see you here. I have a short essay to be published in the upcoming issue of the journal and am delighted to be a part of what I imagine is a beautiful, community endeavour.

      So pleased you liked the writing and images. And I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read. Nice to be in touch!

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  12. Hello Julian, reading your piece reminds me that my first ever memory is a memory of fire. I was about 3 or 4 years old, living in Southsea on the South coast of England when the pier caught fire and burned down. My father was going to take me and my sister to watch – rather ghoulish really! – but I was too scared to go so I stayed at home. I remember standing in the garden looking closely at some pink / purple flowers rather like those in your picture above, then turning my head and seeing a plume of black smoke rising into the sky in the direction of the sea.

    On that pier was a “Dalek” that children could climb into and put a coin in, then it spun round flashing its lights and shouting “exterminate” for a minute or so. I was terrified of this Dalek, and to this day I retain a vague suspicion that it was somehow responsible for the burning down of Southsea pier all those years ago!

    1. Lovely to hear from you, Martin. And what a terrific story to add to a season of fire. I don’t think you’ve ever told me that fire was your first memory. It’s a startling first impression to recollect. The image of the pier in flames over the cold sea is striking, and the remembered flowers perhaps even more so. Small, intricate and persistent details holding their own against the pall of black smoke.

      And I of course love the Dalek, especially its possible culpability! Many, many thanks for sharing a brilliant story.
      Cheers,
      Julian

    1. Mason, many thanks for stopping by. In fact there are many species of pine that require fire in order to germinate, which is one reason why it’s believed that Mexico supports so many varieties, being so prone to wildfire. It’s a fascinating thing to consider, waiting for ages to be cooked through before sprouting for the light.
      Cheers,
      Julian

    1. Thanks, Dean; I appreciate the kind words. It’s precisely the experience I had, discovering charred wood, for example, that appeared to have been meticulously worked with the hands and skills of an artist. Fire has many depths.
      Cheers,
      Julian

  13. I enjoyed the photos and the commentary. Thank you for sharing. The post would have been even more effective without the abusive political ad against Sharron Angle (Ads by Google) right after possibly related posts. Do you have a choice on what ads Google posts on your blog?

    1. Thank you, Anita. It’s been my pleasure to share it, and I’m grateful you took the time to read it so carefully. As for the ads: firstly, I have no choice at all regarding them; secondly, I can’t even see them myself. Although I can see the possibly related posts there is nothing after that for me. Even when I ‘visit’ my own site I can’t see them, as I suppose my computer is recognised. However, a friend with a WordPress blog told me of this problem and had his own site cleared up by complaining to WordPress. Thanks for letting me know and I will certainly make enquiries to WordPress. As I mention global warming as a significant contributor to wildfires in the future, I am quite sure that the Sharron Angle ad was placed because of her outspoken position and belief that global warming is not connected to human activities. Thanks again,
      Julian

  14. Truly evocative piece. Wildfires are part of nature’s renewal system, but we have tampered with the natural order of things, creating fires that are becoming increasing more difficult to contain. I fear that the “renewal” part of the scenario will play a small part in the overall destruction.

    1. I fear the same thing to be honest, that the balance is tipping. There are increasingly severe conditions of drought in many parts of the world, placing a tremendous strain on those ecosystems’ ability to ‘renew.’ I find myself lurching between optimism and pessimism, which in itself is an imbalance that I was made extremely aware of while following in the wake of the fires. Many thanks for taking the time to read; I appreciate it.
      Cheers,
      Julian

  15. لة فى خلقة شئون ويحيى الارض وهى رميم. كلامك جعلنى اعيش الحالة وكا اننى كنت هناك تحية على اسلوبك فى سرد الاشيا ء

    1. Many thanks; glad you liked the photos! They are indeed mine, but taken on a small Canon camera I bought years ago with the intention of using simply as a visual notebook, recording landscapes and moods that I might return to in my writing. Inevitably I began using the camera more independently, as an equal partner to the words. In case you’re interested it’s a Canon Power Shot A520 with only 4 MP, but a lovely macro lens!! Thanks for stopping by…
      Cheers,
      Julian

  16. Those are beautiful pictures documenting the changes in the burnt land. I have to agree with Julian Hoffman though because while I was staying in California I was living in the hills and every summer they have wildfires and I had to take the highway and drive through them when they were going on. I must say that although a wildfire is terrible and causes a lot of damage It is a beautiful thing to watch. Just the raw power of the fire mixed with the wind is extraordinary. I feel bad for the people that loose their homes and belongings to them. But you have to be amazed at the power that nature has. It can wipe out anything in its path in seconds. I remember waking up and seeing the smoke and smelling it from our house and you knew that it was wildfire season again. Im fortunate that they never came close enough to our house but our hiking trails were affected and before I left and moved back to Missouri we whent up just to see how everything was growing back and becoming beautiful again. Nature while dangerous is a wonderful thing. I would hate to be in its path but I do enjoy its splendor. I love the outdoors, the mountains, the beach and the hillsides. But they can all be deadly. You have to have and show some respect towards nature.

    1. Many, many thanks for adding your interesting thoughts and story to a season of fire, Scott. “Nature while dangerous is a wonderful thing.” I like this idea you set out; our perceptions of nature are to such a large extent based on romantic ideas of beauty, so that the more violent aspects of it are deemed cruel. I consider myself fortunate to have never experienced the sheer fear of being faced head-on with a devastating fire (I can barely imagine it to be honest), but I’ve been close enough to marvel at its energy. Especially, as you say, when it is mixed with wind. It is an astonishing and terrible power. And certain landscapes do depend upon fire. But there is a great question of balance to be asked regarding fire, especially considering the role humans have played in its proliferation. I’m having a few days holiday on the Greek coast at the moment and I’ve just watched two fireplanes loaded with water fly low over the beach. There’s fire again somewhere nearby; but where it started and where it will go I’ll probably never know. Fires are so common in Greece these days that most of them don’t even make the local news. Respect is certainly key…thanks for taking the time to read, Scott. Much appreciated.
      Cheers,
      Julian

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I’m delighted that you liked it. And just to let you know that the post is now tweet-enabled. To be honest, I made a right hash of it when I tried to enable it, and eventually gave up. I see now how easy it is, but attempting it in the middle of the night after a couple of beers proved to be my undoing. Again, many thanks!

  17. Beautifully written and evocative piece.Left me with a feeling of ominous foreboding and sadness: the relentless drought and fire that seems to afflict the land and people of south east europe each summer; the generous replenishment of nature without judgement, just does..
    The image of the melted plastic bottle says it all.

    1. Thanks, Sid; these are hills you know well yourself. Where we’re staying on the coast at the moment there is a small area of burn that encircles a number of houses just up the road. It has the look of being started in order to clear brush, but then got out of hand. The dying trees stand amidst the deep greens of Halkidiki and it’s a sudden, and alarming, sight. It brought me back again to the question of natural and unnatural fires, and I feel there is greater sadness and probably less replenishment in the latter. Thanks for reading, my friend.

  18. Julian, beautiful prose – you really have a gift for painting a picture with both imagery and emotion.

    Where I live, there are always summer wildfires, and in North America we’ve really damaged the forest by stamping them all out for the last 60 years. Now our forests burn more intensely and cause much more damage than they did before our anti-fire campaign.

    The earth needs fire. Even though humans look at the result as ‘ugly,’ the earth doesn’t see ugly. It only knows balance and regeneration, cycles of life and death. Fire is the ultimate rebirther.

    Love that photo of the last bit of what looks like ‘living’ wood amongst the burnt wood. Love your stuff, keep up the great work. :)

    1. Thanks, roamingnaturalist! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you and to have your thoughtful comments as part of the post. Last year I read Gary Snyder’s Back on the Fire, and much of it is concerned with precisely what you’re describing – the vast accumulation of scrub and undergrowth over the course of decades which fuels the catastophic canopy fires that are becoming increasingly common. Instead he stresses the need to allow fire, the swift but generally low conflagrations that are a natural part of self-renewing ecosytems. He advocates a wholesale change in the way the U.S. approaches the prevention of fire, but as you rightly point out, this requires a concurrent shift in our perceptions and expectations of the land and ourselves.

      Live wood indeed; there’s always seems to be a spark in the dark! Thanks for the kind words and careful reading…

  19. Congratulations on being chosen for Freshly Pressed! (Sorry it took me so long to get over here…) You deserve the honor, Julian, had this been a book I would not have been able to put it down, it was so gripping!

    I remember in August of 2007 when Greece was on fire. The fires in the Peloponnese and areas surrounding Athens could be seen from space! We saw the satellite images on the evening news. At the time arson was suspected to be the cause…

    1. Thanks very much, Barbara! Especially as you’ve been reading from the beginning; it’s always a joy to hear from you. And no need to apologise as I’m hardly prompt or regular in my postings! I’m slowly working on a book at the moment; though I haven’t a clue when it might be done, you’ll certainly be among the first to know if it should ever be finished.

      The Prespa fire that I wrote about occured during the same summer you mentioned. There were some devastating stories that came out of the Peloponnese at the time. And many tragedies. Indeed arsonists were at fault in a number of cases, which is the same again this year. Acts that I find difficult to comprehend.
      Thanks again for the kind words…

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